Carl Tashian

January 2004

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31 Jan 02004

to Hani:

I have been using the Multiples of 1 comment card as a mouse pad for the last 3 months, as a reminder to send in a little feedback. Better late than never?

Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed the conference. At a company like Zipcar, we don’t have many opportunities for the kind of thinking that this conference evoked. We’re too busy and too small to step very far from our daily work, but I’m so glad I had the opportunity.

I know the conference was broken up into separate sessions, but when I think back on it I remember the individuals, not the sessions as a whole. I think you managed to draw people from such diverse areas that, in the end, the common theme of each session was blurred. That didn’t diminish the experience for me.

First, I think when you invite a speaker, you can only impose so much— they’re likely to make a few changes to a presentation they’ve given a number of times and deliver that. It’s good because they stay within their area of expertise, just putting a slight spin onto it for the conference.

Second, even if I didn’t always see the relationship between topics within a session, I loved the variety. I think there’s still a value in having a theme for each session, if only to steer the panel discussions and look for commonalities. But for me the conference was not about finding specific answers to the questions presented— for most questions answered, new ones arise, and that’s OK. I think that’s how we make progress.

As for next year, an interesting theme might be found by looking further into the past and future. How can we help social networks stay afloat through revolutions, wars, and other major historical events? Can we look to history for inspiration? How about far, far ahead?

Example topics: What can we learn from the role that text messaging played in the overthrow of President Estrada in the Philippines a couple years ago? Or, how might technology better prepare us for an emergency on the magnitude of Sept. 11th— mobilizing emergency crews during a crisis, perhaps using P2P mesh networks to facilitate communication when a dispatcher is no longer available or feasible?

Anyway, thanks again.

Carl Tashian

30 Jan 02004

I’m trying to get myself back into the visual side of things, in preparation for imminent (as in later today) Boston Secrets photo work.

Finally pulled out the old SLR. I love this thing. The feel of the focus ring and the sound of the shutter… it is so gourmet. And it has huge glass… compared to my pocket digital camera.

Noah extended an offer for me to borrow a Rolleiflex TLR of his. I think I will take him up on it, and go out to shoot some medium format photos for once.

I love Apple’s latest version of X11 under Mac OS X. It is fantastic:

  • It uses standard OS X widgets for close/resize/minimize.
  • You can Exposé X11 windows! You can put them into the dock!
  • And you get a lot of other niceities of native OS X apps. You can even copy text from X11 windows into OS X windows!
  • Optional root window could let you have your full X11 desktop.
  • most importantly, I get to use my loud and obnoxious Fedora box from the comfort of my laptop.

Speaking of remote desktops, also of note is Microsoft’s fine Remote Desktop Client
for the Mac, which lets you connect to any Windows XP or 2000 server, should you care to. Why is it better than RealVNC?

  • definitely faster
  • when using it on a Mac with spanning monitors, you can have the Mac on one monitor and the PC on the other
  • you can make the Dock pop up while in full screen mode when connected to a Windows box
  • etc…

And while we’re on the topic, I have to say that Apple has really outdone themselves with their latest remote desktop solution. It’s a little big brotherish, but were I running a lab of Macs, I’d want something like this.. along with Mike Bombich’s great sysadmin software.

Here are the best possible fried eggs. This is only worth making if you have great eggs. Get them fresh if you have some hens or geese around. I don’t, so I get the local/organic ones at the market.. they are one of the few organic items for which I notice a vast difference in taste.

Put a non-stick pan over low heat, almost as low as it will go.
Wait 3-4 minutes
Add butter, let it melt and bubble (about a minute)
Add eggs, salt and pepper, then quickly cover and cook 3 minutes for nice runny ones, or more if you no like runny.
No need for flipping.

Serve with simple buttered toast.

For more breakfasts, see John Thorne’s In Defense of the Savory Breakfast.

From The NY Times Mag from last weekend, an interesting piece about copyright law in the 21st century. I’m glad to see this topic getting some real attention in the press, especially since the spin is heavily on the side of the Copy Left people, the Creative Commons, Larry Lessig, etc. Of course, producers and consumers are both vital to keeping the media industries alive, so a solution must balance the needs of both. That’s economics. What remains to be seen is how much further the noose will be tightened wrt. distribution, reuse, and redistribution. Can the Internet still save us?

This article doesn’t take packaging—one of the precious few physical manifestations of all this data—as seriously as consumers do. You’re not going to get packaging on the iTunes Music Store. We’ve gone from live performances (the most visceral option) to LP records (with big 10”x10” or so images) to CDs (much smaller) to little web pages about the music. I guess people put up with the transition to CDs, out of convenience, so maybe they’ll put up with no physical manifestation, out of convenience. But this just isn’t a complete musical experience, in my mind.

So I think packaging’s value is on the rise, at least during the transition period from CDs to downloaded MP3s. Maybe I’m just paying more attention to it, but aren’t companies are putting a lot more effort into their packaging these days?

28 Jan 02004

How is this possible?

We are not at the pinnacle of technology. Technology peaked when we discovered bread.

26 Jan 02004

Call me narcissistic, but I had to search on’s “Search Inside the Book” for my name. It’s just too easy—there aren’t many Tashians in this world. (note to my friend Mr. Kaldari who was once Mr. Smith: here’s another advantage of the name change)

The result of my search came in the form of a book which documents, in humiliating detail on page 70, my failure as a computer scientist. I’m not going name the book in question or discuss the source of these scandalous allegations, but I will say that I had it coming.

It’s always nice to see your name in print.

Well, sometimes.

25 Jan 02004

I went to a legal fee party in Jamaica Plain last night. As described by the invitation:

“On May 1st Ben C. was unlawfully arrested when he intervened on behalf of a stranger who was being subjected to blatent police brutality. … Ben witnessed two police officers violently beating a 16-year-old boy on the street … After identifying himself as a witness, Ben was tackled, thrown to the ground, charged with resisting arrest & disorderly conduct, and sent to jail for the evening. In a single moment of defending the basic human rights of another, Ben was transformed from witness into a defendant. He faces charges in Worcester Superior Court in early April 2004.”

The party was thrown to raise $2500+ for the case. The turnout was huge, and from the number of $20 bills in the jar, I think people were being very generous. The crowd was a mix of MassArt/Museum School people and JP locals. JP has a big central/south american contingent, so there was a 6-piece salsa band, etc. Such a nice, warm atmosphere.

I got a call from one of the organizers today, and it turns out they raised $3000, which pretty much covers the party and fees.

People are good.

Today I found myself at Formaggio Kitchen, a specialty food store in North Cambridge, staring—with the unrequited epicuriosity normally reserved for glossy food pornography—at fifty dollar bottles of olive oil (750ml), bizarre varieties of wild mushrooms, organic kumquats, yucca root, and of course the cheeses.

The cheeses are great because you know exactly what to do with them. They do not require sisyphean knife wrangling or the resurrection of lost North African tribal recipes, buried for thousands of years beneath match books, scotch tape rolls, dish towels, toothpicks, and (of course) dirt, all of which have configured themselves into an Indiana Jones-style quagmire in the drawer by the sink.

The cheese case at Formaggio Kitchen has a bumper sticker on the side that reads, “Life’s too short to eat supermarket cheeses.” They sell a hundred or so cheeses, from small sculpted goat cheese pyramids to handmade farmhouse cheddar to blue cheeses that aren’t blue. It’s a sight to see, and beyond that, you can taste any of them on the spot. Sometimes a bit of wine is served alongside the cheese, accompanied a dozen or so upper-middle class Cambridge lushes.

It’s certainly a guilty pleasure. I only go every few months. Everything seems overpriced—everything is overpriced—yet I can convince myself that perhaps it’ll be worth it. I wonder if such a high price makes me hesitant to regret a purchase, but needless to say I never have. So I bought a half pound of salami, a wedge of Brie that felt, through the cellophane, like the supple breast of a nubile bovine, and a bottle of red wine (“the perfect Super Bowl wine,” I’m told by someone who looks like a Harvard professor). I leave, a weight lifted from my wallet, wondering how I will conceal the bovine from my roommate.

24 Jan 02004

In 7th grade I brought a mug of strong black tea to American History class each morning at 7am, and each morning I’d fall asleep by 7:10am. I just couldn’t handle it. I was getting 8 hours of sleep every night. I wasn’t a partier. It didn’t matter. Test after test I barely passed. I didn’t give a shit about our past.

It wasn’t until after college that I returned to American History. Somehow I stumbled upon Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States, so I ran off to Europe with it and, finally, some of it got through to me. This once-radical revisionist history book, first published almost twenty years ago, tells the stories of the victims of American history. It’s colossally depressing, it’s a heavy, thick tome, and it’s riveting. It carries the weight of millions who died so we could sit on our comfy couches and watch American Idol on FOX. Zinn’s history challenges traditional histories which are so often mouthpieces for the imperialists of yesterday.

Instead of watching the State of the Union Address, I saw Howard Zinn speak the other night at The Cambridge Forum. He was discussing his recent book Artists in a Time of War, among other things. From the Cambridge Forum site:

“A new book from leading American historian Howard Zinn reflects on war, dissent, and the role of the artist, illuminating some of the 20th century’s most celebrated voices of conscience, from Mark Twain to Langston Hughes.

What is the everyday potential of artists and citizens to create social apertures for change?”

What a badass.

23 Jan 02004

Today was “officially” my last day as a full-time employee at Zipcar; after almost exactly three years. Of course, I’m going back Monday. I have some things to finish up. But after that, I’m moving to part-time with them, twenty five hours a week, and trying to sort my life out in the rest of the time.

I’m scared. I’m anxious. And I feel the frissons of excitement.

Here’s my todo list, in no order:
get a life
finish those books I started, then start some more
actual exercise?
cook, bake bread.
find out where technology is
finish watching Truffaut and Kurosawa movies
get an oddball part-time job one day a week
visit Boston’s fine cultural institutions
visit Boston’s fine culinary institutions
join the Boston Athenæum and read the paper with the seniors in the morning
show some photos
write Boston Secrets
not snowboarding
organize all my shit, or at least some of it
make photographs
take a class at Harvard Extension School?
build database-backed web apps for fun and profit
be with my friends
play Scrabble
not spend all day, every day in front of a computer
find out what the rest of 2004 will bring.

19 Jan 02004

I just finished watching Beyond the Clouds, directed by Michelangeo Antonioni. It’s a beautiful, slow-paced movie that often comes across more as a series of photos, or watercolors even, than a movie. Everything is so lush and sensual. The movie is shrowded in Italian coastal fog and thin silk nightgowns which roll back to reveal startlingly beautiful European women. Lots of sex here, but I wouldn’t call them “sex scenes”—that sounds too crude for what was portrayed. Each scene had its own emotions attached: Some of it was out of pity or revenge, some out of love and joy. Some was narrowly avoided due to “pride or folly.”

And within and between all these sex scenes, Beyond the Clouds gets into some philosophical and emotional grounds that we’re all too young to understand. I’ll need to watch this movie a few times—and maybe dig deeper into the Antonioni catalog—if I’m to have any chance of knowing what it’s all about. I’m looking forward to it.

18 Jan 02004

Snow flurries today, turned to slush. A nice day to read and think. Todd is in Paris; happy to have the place to myself. Greg and Em came by with dogs (one theirs, one rented) who scurried around while we talked.

Lacking strength, flexibility, and balance, I started yoga today at O2 Yoga just down the block. I knew it was going to be difficult—yoga ain’t for wimps—but I think I did OK for my first time. Great instructor, and a very comfortable atmosphere. Can’t wait to go back.

Interesting read on Slashdot about plone. Should have known about this project and didn’t. Zope has always been of mild interest, but plone looks good. Also nice to see all the modules they’ve build for it. Time to learn Python?

Cooked two things: Irish brown bread and a chicken, cilantro, and cumin-flavored soup with vegetables. Used yuca root for the first time (it’s unimpressive).

Must continue breadmaking habit; borrow Alex’s memorable book on the subject.

Lots of tea. Feeling tired yet refreshed this evening.

With people from our distant offices in town for a few days, I got into a conversation about business travel, and how horrible the food is. People who are constantly on the road just want a simple meal, while vacation travellers might want something different. The latter audience is well served by higher-end hotels and their shitty, expensive brunches. But what about these business travelers who just want a simple meal? I think Cracker Barrel has been successful serving this need, at least out on the highway. But what about hotels? A simple meal from room service might be: a bowl of some simple non-creamy soup, a few slices from a misshapen loaf of brown bread, a salad with home made dressing, and a nice piece of fruit (not standard food service grade fruit—a piece of fruit with flavor). Who would want more than this?

Right now the formula of high-end restaurants is to serve fairly simple, straightforward food made with excellent ingredients, in an environment which is appropriate for the price tag of the meal. I like a high-end meal from time to time, maybe once a year or something, but the restaurants that really get my consistent patronage are mid-range restaurants, typically small and independent, that manage to serve simple, straightforward food made with great ingredients, in a simple, straightforward atmosphere. Restaurants can do this as long as they don’t want to make much of a profit. At some point, the bulk of mid-range restaurants choose to skimp on good ingredients in the name of capitalism, or use more filler ingredients as a substitute for expensive ones.

So why can’t a hotel follow the formula that the best small restaurants do? I think a hotel is so high-stakes, compared to the corner restaurant, that it cannot help being profit-driven to the point of deminished quality. This is also why I think chains can never be as tasty as independent restaurants, though I may be proven wrong. If someone finds out how to make a chain that doesn’t sacrifice quality, they will be very successful (though maybe not very rich).

17 Jan 02004

Yesterday I left things off wondering if there were ways, other than geography, that you’d want to organize the photos/text/etc.

I had dinner with Patrick tonight and we talked about the project. From this discussion came the idea that this site, the geographic organization of media, might be integrated with a social network like Friendster. You could see the world that your friends portray, or you could expand your search outward and see what others have submitted. When combined with a blog, we end up with a “people’s history” of the world, with both chronological and geographic indices. Think of this over 50 years, 100 years, and so on. Why not, right? The information could be stored at a central server or even on a network like FreeNet. Yes, it would be many terabytes in no time, but I think storage technology is moving as quickly as we can fill it up, if not faster, so that’s OK.

There are some money-making possibilities here, too. The code could be licensed. The photos could be sent off the ofoto for prints. Etc…

15 Jan 02004

I’ve just been reading Katherine Harmon’s new book called You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. She compiled a set of maps which you’ll just have to see for yourself, such as:

  • Boylan Heights pumpkin map (outlines of pumpkin designs in the neighborhood on Halloween)
  • Main Route of Expedition through the Alimentary Canal, the human body as a geographical map (“Hartsdale”, “Clavicle Ridge”, “West Kidney”)
  • What’s up? South!, a standard geopolitical map of the world—except for one thing.
  • A New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America, stretching East and West, compressing the middle. Reminds me of Saul Steinburg’s world maps that were used as New Yorker covers.
  • World of Experience, a design-your-own “experience map.” Sounds like something my mom would do.

At least check it out in the bookstore/library. What I like is that there is emotion and function in these maps, to varying degrees, and there’s not always a trade-off between the two.

Thinking about maps and web sites and photography… I was remembering an old idea of a global photographic library that uses geography as the main axis of organization. has their library, but the focus is on the metadata: critiquing technical aspects of the photos, or musing, “Hey, do you think this is good art?”

The site I’m thinking of really depends on the audience. Either it’s a multimedia blog/art project (an extension of LiveJournal?), or it’s a “you are a reporter” kind of site (the ultimate way to get beyond “media bias”?), an underground media outlet—a look at what’s going on under the surface in this world.

But the point is that it’s centered on places and people and their stories—their photography is simply one way of telling a story. It’s more spontaneous, but anyone can be involved. I hate to equate it to the Lomo brand, but that may be a close relative. Digital cameras can be a lot of fun—and now that everyone has a camera (phone) in their pocket all the time, with the means to send images, I think a geographical representation would make things very interesting.

The stories told by these cameras don’t have to be newspaper articles on politics, or This American Life-style feel-good pieces, or local news shock-value stories. They can be all of these, or none. Someone takes photographs of what they think is important. Who am I to interfere?

As a visitor, I can click on my area and see what my neighbors are doing. It’s got this sick vouyeristic thing to it that I love. Or I can bring up London W10 and see what’s going on there. How exciting to browse by geography, then look at photographs over time.

The trick, of course, is filtering. Isn’t that always the trick? Do you use a set of editors to filter what’s coming in manually? Do you let it be a free for all? How about Slashdot-style voting; do you let people vote on which photos/notes/sounds are most interesting?

Are there other ways you’d want to organize the information?

11 Jan 02004

to Cecelia:

This is more for your amusement than anything else. I had an idea today about mystery books and since you’re the only mystery writer I know, I thought I’d send it along. I’d been thinking for a while of alternative ways to present a novel; aside from the graphic novels currently in vogue, how about a novel that changes typeface as you go along? Who decided that authors be limited to bold and italics? I understand that too much dynamic type can be distracting—it all depends on how you use it. But anything on paper will be visual by nature, so why not make the most of the medium by introducing some well-chosen type modifications?

Of course I’m not the first person to think of that, but I’m surprised it’s not done more frequently. Have you seen a book called House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski? I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of it yet, but apparently he uses changes in typeface and well-chosen page breaks to effectively increase the drama.

So I had all of this rolling around in my head, and last night I watched “Stolen Kisses”, a wonderful old François Truffaut movie. At one point the main character, Antoine Doinel, takes his latest read and a knife into the bathroom with him. His wife notes that the pages still haven’t been opened. I guess I’d never known that paperbacks weren’t always cut at the factory. It seemed kind of quaint, and the picture stayed in my mind of someone holding a book in one hand and a knife in the other.

Which led me to think of this for a modern-day mystery novel. Yeah, the book and knife thing is gimmicky, but I wonder how the experience of reading a book would change if you were forced to open the pages? Would it just be annoying, and break your concentration, or could the enforced pauses be used as a narrative device? Would you feel required to cut the pages in order, and be less likely to skip around? Etc…

Anyway, I hope all is well with y’all! Sorry I didn’t get to see you over the holidays…


10 Jan 02004

It’s 3° F here in Boston, so I’m staying home and making bourbon baked beans
from my favorite cookbook, Sally Schneider’s A New Way To Cook.

This is the time of year when, aside from cooking baked beans, I want to
hole myself up in the darkroom and spend a weekend making photographs and
listening to the BBC.

Further thoughts on the gaming table: It’s said that tea drinkers are sippers,
and coffee drinkers are gulpers. I think of the gaming table as a tea drinking
activity, so perhaps the aesthetic should take something from the things
we associate with tea. Not to say it doesn’t belong in a coffee shop.

Physical/emotional things I associate with tea:

  • obviously, a relaxed, lingering mood.
  • small doses
  • wood
  • Asian stylistic simplicity: bamboo, cast iron and porcelain pots and cups, etc.
  • subtleties
  • roundness
  • aroma
  • winter weather, rain/snow

On other fronts, I’m looking with great interest at different interfaces, one of which may be ideal: it’s a touch screen but you can spill coffee on it, it works with an overhead DLP projector, and its got 0.1mm accuracy. It can also pinpoint who, of the people at the table, touched the screen! This is pretty exciting, but whether I can actually get my hands on one is another story— it’s still in a prototype phase.

Meanwhile, people I’ve described it to seem excited and receptive to the idea. One discouaging thought I had, though, is that the feel of board games may be eliminated by my design. The feel of wooden scrabble pieces, or playing cards being shuffled, or a soapstone chess piece in hand. It may be that this is a big part of the appeal of board games, and that my idea could fall flat by not being able to provide any substitute for this. What do you think?

9 Jan 02004

I’m doing finite state machine design for work today, to handle communication between our embedded system and a new GPRS modem.

To refresh my memory about these things, I went hunting around on the web. I’m surprised by how few good resources I found, considering this is a cornerstone of computer science. Most resources are very academic/theoretical, with too-simple FSM examples like the alarm clock, traffic light, etc. Most are focused on the digital logic design side of things, as opposed to the compiler design/Yacc/Lex side. Maybe I’m not googling for the right things, maybe this is too common, but I would expect to find a lot of finished example code for finite automata.

FSMs are simple as long as you follow the standard procedure for them:

  • Write a human description
  • Draw out a state/transition graph
  • Do some state minimization / Quine-McCluskey voodoo
  • Build your transition table
  • Write the code
  • Test and enjoy!

I remember encountering CircleMUD when I was about 14, and learning C by reading it. It is chock full of all the most important procedural programming concepts, and it’s well written and well commented. It has a couple good state machines, excellent examples of TCP/IP socket code, pointers and structs galore, binary/flat file management, and some well-designed algorithms. Were I teaching computer science, this program would be the syllabus, and for a bit of back-story, students would read a few seminal books (a basic algorithms and data structures book, TCP/IP illustrated, and a compiler/FSM book). After my course, you’ve got yourself a minor.

I think it’s how we all learn best: we need some context in which to base the theoretical knowledge. Otherwise it’s just a vacuum of theory, with no concrete output, no results. It’s really only meaningful when you’re high as a kite, or if you’ve already had a lot of concrete experience and you’re looking to zoom out.

One benefit of OSS is that its increased this library of good code from which many can learn. It’s accessible. I’ve always wanted to step through the core of the Linux kernel source. There’s even a book of the Linux kernel source, neatly annotated.

Of course, OSS has also added to the vast wasteland of horrible code. Choose wisely the code you wish to learn from.

I think there’s a web site idea here somewhere (and it’s not Freshmeat or Sourceforge).

8 Jan 02004

Greg and I got eMacs at work last week. Here are the only annoying things that have come up, as far as I can recall.

Is it at all possible to select a dropdown item in a web form on Safari using only the keyboard?
Can you mount SMB network drives automatically when you login? (I’ve seen this and this, and have tried that with no success)
Does Apple make some kind of iCal corporate server? Something akin to Exchange’s calendar, that is?
Is it possible to print to an SMB network printer? (a DeskJet 3820)

Those are my only OS X questions after a week of using it at the Zipcar office. Considering it’s otherwise 100% Windows at the office (including the Exchange server), I’d say the switch was pretty smooth. We have Active Directory authentication going on and everything. We had to give up the following apps:

  • MPLAB IDE and PIC C compiler, for embedded systems programming
  • TOAD SQL monitor, which isn’t that great anyway. But I still haven’t found an excellent SQL monitor for the Mac. Or for any platform, really.
  • Exchange calendar features (iCal is cooler, but it won’t sync with Exchange afaik)
  • Oracle Enterprise Management stuff. It runs in Java but … you know how Oracle is. Oracle’s OS X progress seems to have come to a halt a year or so ago.

That’s it, I think. I could probably do ALL of these things with Virtual PC, which Microsoft will supposedly update soon. Granted, that’s half the software I use for my job, but it’s the less important half. Safari, ssh, a good text editor, and CVS is the other half.

Meanwhile, others in the office are wowed by everything from Exposé to the eject button on the keyboard.

6 Jan 02004

Here are the three levels of cognitive/emotional design, as defined by Donald A. Norman:

visceral design:
appearance. “this blog looks nice.”

behavioral design:
the pleasure and effectiveness of use. “this blog is fun to read. I feel good.”

reflective design:
self-image, personal satisfaction, memories.
“this blog reminds me of when I worked at the Dairy Dip”
or, later, “that blog just keeps coming back to me”

… from Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things.

I talked to a few people about this gaming table so far.. and it has spiraled out of control. In a good way.

A highlight of my trip to Europe in 2000 was a meal I had with a complete stranger in Paris. I wandered into a restaurant alone, and I asked the hostess the only French phrase I knew. The answer was no, so I stood there for a minute. Tried to gesture at a menu. Someone came up to me and said something, so I asked if he spoke English. And indeed he did. He asked if I’d like to have dinner with him, and I said sure. I realized that this was a custom that simply doesn’t exist in America. We had a great meal and I thought, why don’t they do this stateside?

So American café culture could be friendlier. And short of changing the culture, maybe this digital gaming table could add much needed glue.

Anyway, my cousin Ethan had a number of valuable suggestions. The most important: start with the need to be addressed by the users. Of course, this is the bedrock of usability. So, from the point of view of the users, this table could:

  • act as an ice breaker in a cafe (there’s always someone you’d like to meet, isn’t there?), then give people who just met something to do together so they can cultivate their relationship a little.
  • give bored people something to do while they sip their coffee
  • provide entertainment for passive observers of the game in progress
  • give people a place to go when they want to play a game

And of course, all of these points help the sale of coffee. Bring people in and keep them around longer.

Anyway, I’ve always liked looking at what the user will experience. It’s also interesting to see what happens when you put something out there. Inevitably, people will not use it exactly as you expect, but their usage patterns will always hint at what might be needed.

The community part is the most promising, in my mind, and it’s also closer to chess and scrabble than to Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. I thought of the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, with its famous chess boards. There’s always a bustle of community activity around those tables, and that’s a good sign. So going along those lines of community games, Ethan and I did a couple minutes of brainstorming. I told him about Audiopad’s interface, and he talked about an exhibition at the SFMOMA that was similar. Radio/magnetic pucks that relayed location information and therefore acted as controls for the interface, combined with an LCD projector aimed at the table from above.

We also talked about having a large central screen, viewable by all participants, which showed progress of the current game(s). The simplest form would show scores and some other interesting bits to draw people in, but I think it gets more exciting if you see the central screen as a key element in the game itself. For example, Bingo or Keno, where you have your own card and you watch the screen for results. OK, those aren’t games, but you get the idea. Take that notion and add the digital gaming table to it, so now you have the micro-game and the macro-game. The four people at my table can help build scrabble words together and place them on the big board.

When I told this all to Todd tonight, he said “I’d love to play Risk like that: Germany and its resources are on my table, and the big board shows the whole world.” The micro-macro possibilities here are v. cool. So I think the big board should be a big part of this project.

5 Jan 02004

The first thing that struck me when I stumbled out of the car in Lakeville, CT last Friday was how clean the air smelled. Boston’s air is stale and lifeless, and I get used to it so easily. So I stood there for a minute and took this in: mountains in the distance, the sound of a nearby stream, light snow flurries, and that sweet clean air. Otherwise, total silence. I needed nothing more to raise my spirits. This was my first visit to the Berkshires, after three years living in Boston, and I immediately understood why so many New Yorkers and Bostonians go here. Route 7 winds through picturesque New England towns at a relaxed pace. How had I missed this?

Yet somehow I managed to arrive before Starbucks. And that could only be good, because we wanted nothing to do with a cup of coffee. Nancy, Laurie and I were here to visit Harney & Sons’ shop and tea tasting room, in whose parking lot we were now standing. A path through the snow-covered garden led to their front door. Nostrils now detoxed, I stepped.

The tasting room was cozy and bright, with things tucked away in every corner. Myriad teapots—glass, porcelain, and cast iron, French tablecloths, Scottish shortbread, Moroccan tea glasses, jams and jellies, and so on. Oh, did I mention the tea?

Each tea was a sensory overload. I started by choosing one from the hundred or so varieties available. OK, “Paris.” The girl behind the counter took a large black and gold canister down from the shelf, opened it up, and showed off the goods. I pushed aside the feeling of being offered illicit drugs, leaned over the counter and went in for a whiff. Beyond the immediate visceral impact, this tea, and many of the others, evoked memories—of my grandmother, my parents, last winter’s big snow storm, and so on.

Were I interested—and I always was—she’d make a cup of it for me to taste. Of the ten or so teas I tried, few needed sugar. Milk wasn’t even offered. It was here that I became a tea snob. There were teas with five distinct flavors that arrived at different times. There were teas from the mountains and teas from the valleys. There was Winter White Earl Grey, there was Fenghuang Shuixiang, and there was Rooibus Chai. After two hours of tea tasting, and the mild warning signs of caffeine-induced cardiac arrest that followed, I managed to pick a handful of teas to take home, and we finally buzzed out of the shop.

High-quality tea is a hot commodity in America these days, and Harney has become the largest distributor of the good stuff. John Harney started the business in the basement of his Salisbury, CT hotel 20 years ago, and he now sells tea to everyone from Au Bon Pain to the Ritz Carlton. The company just moved into a bigger factory for the third time in as many years.

The factory is set back from Route 44 in Middleton, NY. Bev Kosak, who sits among small offices in the front of the building where mail order calls are taken, gave us a tour. The factory is about 35,000 sq. ft, on two levels, and handles everything from tea blending to shipping out individual orders. Bev took us through the process in order, starting with a large storage room filled with specialty tea crates from around the world, sorted by variety. Most of their tea arrives via Hamburg, Germany—the tea distribution capitol of the world—in big wooden crates and boxes. From here, tea is moved into plastic containers, 50 and 75 pounds at a time. Some teas are then blended in 10-foot high rotating drums. I imagined how much scaling trouble they must have had going from tea blends made by hand, in a small mixing bowl, to these huge cement mixers. Even the best recipes don’t survive that kind of scaling, so they probably had to do a lot of experimentation to get things right, slowly working their way up to larger and larger mixers.

Once all the blending is done, the teas are ready to be packaged. Loose tea is measured and packaged in canisters and bags by hand, but the tea bags, both of the silk and paper variety, are made by machine. Vacuum cleaner A, located at one end of the Rube Goldberg contraption, sucks up tea from a 75 pound drum B, and fills each bag C with exactly the right amount. The bags are sealed shut, tags are attached, 20 are counted out, and a box, is built and filled. Finished boxes stack up neatly at the other end of the machine.

Once the tea is packaged, it goes to an inventory storage area, much like an aisle of a grocery store, filled with every product Harney produces. The people who fill orders and ship them out go to these inventory racks to get what they need, box them up, slap on a label, and away it goes.

I haven’t been in many factories before, so I had images from Metropolis in my mind before going in, of the incomprehensible machines, and of workers as cogs, putting in 20 hours a day, not able to see what role they play in the bigger picture. I don’t think many factories in America are like this, and Harney definitely isn’t. The people at Harney were clearly enjoying themselves, and I think the product and the company’s growth reflect that. The visit reaffirmed the idea that business is all about the people and the relationships. At Harney’s current size, not a small factory, I was happy to be able to get my head around the entire process. Next year, who knows.

4 Jan 02004

Made a half-decent koresh tonight. The chicken, onion, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon half was decent. I could have stopped right there. But then I added tomato puree and simmered for a while.. and it got too tomato-y. Deliberating about what to do with it next. Turn it into a soup? Let it hang out in the fridge, and see what kind of crust forms?

Bought the #1 selling iTunes song: OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” from their latest Speakerboxxx/The Love Below 2-disc set. I’m not an OutKast fan, but I have to respect how good this is. They understand intensity, coupled with the kind of simplicity that sticks with you. In fact, I’m shocked by the simplicity. This song could have been put together on an 9-track recorder:

  • lead vocals (duet) with tons of energy
  • simple backing vocals, and “uh!” and “ah!” fills
  • bass guitar, which carries the whole melody
  • simple acoustic guitar strum
  • simple bass/snare drum
  • hand claps
  • a great warped synth bass thing
  • a synth keyboard sound for some upper end/complementary melody
  • a few other noodling synth sounds, very electronic, but only used to boost the energy in the second/third verses.

OK, maybe it’s not that simple when you lay it all out, but it sure sounds simple. I guess that’s the trick with almost any music: Not to muddle things up. Missy Elliot understands it; her current single Pass That Dutch, on This Is Not A Test!, has little more than vocals, hand claps, and a very simple bass synth sound.

All the good stuff is in the spaces, as usual.